Most humans are accustomed to grooming and bathing themselves. Yet when it comes to our furry family members, some people outsource this important task to professionals.
We’re not saying you need to stay away from professional groomers altogether. But grooming can be expensive, and some animals get quite stressed at the groomer. So it’s good to know which grooming tasks you can tackle at home, and which ones are best left to the pros at the veterinary clinic (for medically necessary grooming) or groomer (for looking and smelling pretty).
Why is grooming important? And what can pet parents do to make it more enjoyable for humans and animals alike?
Many of the following grooming tips apply to both dogs and cats, but each has some specific grooming needs. What do pet parents need to know about grooming cats and dogs?
Cats spend a lot of time grooming their fur. They love to be clean, and they will do a lot of the work themselves. Watching them clean their faces with their paws is one of life’s greatest pleasures.
But cats do need to be brushed, especially if they have long fur. If these cats aren’t groomed enough, they can get painful tangles, and they can hack up hairballs, which is unpleasant for cats and for the people who hear them hacking or who step in a wet furball.
Brushing has many benefits for cats. It gets rid of dirt, grease, and dead hair. And it dislodges skin flakes, stimulating circulation. Many cats enjoy it, so it can be an important bonding time. If they don’t, they will let you know by running away and hiding or by hissing, spitting, and scratching if they’re feeling “spicy.”
Generally, it works better to brush in the direction of the fur; otherwise your cat might come to hate the brushing process. They like their fur to be neat and clean just as some people like a well-groomed look for themselves.
Veterinarians and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) share these tips and reasons for grooming your cat. Some are great at reducing the chances that your cat will need to go to the vet for care, and some are great for helping you know if you need to get something checked out by their vet.
Longhaired cats like Persians, Ragdolls, and Maine Coons require more frequent brushing than shorthairs. They shed all year long, and they can develop tangles and mats that can be painful and even cause skin infections.
When brushing, start with the abdomen and legs, and comb the fur upward toward the head. Then comb the neck fur upward, toward the chin. Gently brush the tail floof. If you encounter knots, you can gently trim them, try a tool called a mat-splitter, or sprinkle some talcum powder over the knots and try to work them free with your fingers.
Some longhaired or overweight cats need extra help in the grooming department to keep them from developing mats or collecting feces near their butts. A vet or groomer can do what is called a “sanitary shave,” which helps keep that area clean.
Other longhaired cats get what is called a “lion cut” once or twice a year. Lion cuts mean the fur is shaved everywhere except their face, head, tail, and feet.
Pet parents and experts are divided on whether lion cuts are a good idea. It probably depends on your cat. It might look a little silly, but if they tend to get tangles or dreads, it feels good for them to be free of the knots, and they need less grooming. On the other hand, shaved cats might have trouble keeping a constant body temperature, so it is not recommended for cats that go outside (which isn’t a good idea anyway).
In any case, don’t use a lion cut as a fashion statement. Your kitty is perfect just the way they are. I’ve never given one to my cat Pearl, but I’m sure she’d either look especially adorable or ridiculous. And she’d hate every moment of it, which is why sometimes I’ll simply cut the fur shorter around her chest so that she can drag her tongue through the full length of her fur. Otherwise, she struggles to get it clean.
Generally, cats do a good job of keeping themselves clean with their brush-like tongues. But sometimes they get dirty and need a bath to get clean.
I’ve never met a cat that enjoyed a bath (though internet videos show some cats do seem to like it), but I have bathed some that tolerate it once they get over the initial shock of being wet. I've only ever washed my cats if they used to be outdoor cats, if they had fleas when I got them from someone else, or if they accidentally got outdoors.
This is a checklist of things to have before you get your cat wet.
Then make sure you’re wearing something you don’t mind getting wet, and to prevent getting scratched, be patient and calm with your cat. While washing your cat is similar to washing your hair, here’s what to do with the stuff you got for this wet and hopefully fun activity.
Yes! They need bathing for skin care.
Certain breeds of cats, called Sphynx, do not have fur. These cats need a high-quality diet or else their skin produces extra oil. They can even leave greasy stains on furniture or linens.
Pet MD has tips for bathing hairless cats and recommends gentle cat shampoos that are soap-free and made with natural ingredients.
Dogs’ grooming needs depend a lot on their breed, or mix, and what type of coat they have. Poodles and doodles often require regular shaves because they don’t shed their fur like many other dogs do. Some people do it themselves, and others take their dog to a professional groomer.
Shorthaired breeds and mixes, like boxers, labs, and beagles, don’t require clippers to stay dapper. But all dogs need some brushing, dental care, ear cleaning, and nail trimming. What are some things pet parents need to know about these grooming tasks?
Most dogs can stay neat and clean with one or two brushing sessions a week. But some will need more, depending on how much they are shedding and the length of their fur. Your dog’s fur will also determine the type of brush that will work best. The following are some brush types that pet parents find useful.
Just like with cats, brushing offers a good opportunity to check for ticks, fleas, lumps, bumps, injuries, or mats. It also helps control shedding, so you might have less vacuuming to do.
Is it time for a bath? Your dog probably doesn’t think so. And bathing too much can dry out their fur and skin. Most dogs can have a bath once every two or three months.
But we know that dogs can get “skunked,” and they love to roll in the stinkiest stuff they can find.
The American Kennel Club has some advice for bathing your dog at home, and I’ve added a few other notable suggestions. Special instructions are required for getting rid of that skunk smell, so this is a good guide for any other reason you might have to bathe your dog.
Similar to the checklist for cats, this is a checklist of things to have before you get your dog wet.
Then make sure you’re wearing something you don’t mind getting wet and dirty, be patient and calm with your dog, and have treats (a portion of their normal diet) to let them know that they’re a good dog for putting up with it all.
While washing your dog is similar to washing a cat, here’s what to do with the stuff you got for this wet and hopefully fun activity.
As you’re grooming your pet, also make sure to look at their ears, nails, and teeth. These are important for your pet’s health, for both dogs and cats.
Check your pet’s ears for stuff in them such as wax or debris, and notice if they have an off-putting smell to them, which could indicate a bacterial infection, ear mites, or yeast infection. If you see or smell anything that troubles you, you can take your pet to your veterinarian for a checkup.
Groomers won’t be able to diagnose or treat ear problems; otherwise they risk practicing veterinary medicine without a license.
Dogs and cats need to keep their nails short. It’s best for their health, and you probably prefer their nails short too.
Unless they are walking on paved surfaces a lot, most dogs require regular nail trims. If the nails aren’t trimmed, walking can become painful or the nails can break. Some pet parents are nervous about nail trims, but most dogs can get used to it if you use the right tool and approach it calmly and with patience.
Trim your cat’s nails regularly. If they don’t tolerate it, we have tips. If they really resist you and you don’t have the patience to go slowly, you might need to pay to get it done at a groomer or vet clinic.
Healthy teeth and gums are important for pets too. And some dental problems need to be identified and treated early to avoid costly procedures. Tooth brushing, diet, and professional cleanings are all ways that you can keep your pet smiling.
Despite your best efforts, if they won’t let you brush their teeth, then make sure to ask your pet’s vet if your dog or cat needs a dental procedure.
Not all pet parents can or want to perform some of these grooming tasks (I have trouble with many grooming tasks with my cat Pearl). Some dogs and cats get very nervous before and/or during the process. The pros have training and tools that can make it easier.
Not all groomers are created equal, and professional grooming can be quite pricey. In general, pet parents should choose a groomer that works well for you and your pet.
Grooming is an important part of pet health, and pet parents can learn a lot by paying attention to their pet’s reactions when they are being brushed, bathed, or getting their nails trimmed. For anxious pets, veterinarians have behavioral and medication options that can make grooming more pleasant for everyone.
I have tried to get my cat Pearl to enjoy grooming. However, she doesn't like to be held and I lack the time and patience she'd need to get used to it. I have managed to brush her a little here and there, cut some of the long fur on her chest with sharp scissors, or gently tease a part of a knot of fur, but her teeth and nails? She won't tolerate it long enough, and trying to give her medications is difficult even for me. So I do ask her veterinarian and their staff to help out with any medically required grooming during her routine checkups.
As always, if you have questions, talk to your veterinarian. We’re trained and we're here to help.